I missed the news cycle on this one, and that was on purpose. It didn’t seem like there was anything to say after the barbaric shootings in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino, especially when the only thing many of us could say—“Praying”—was mocked as psychobabble and labeled “microaggression.” Plenty of people rose to defend prayer as free speech (Jonah Goldberg, David French, and Peggy Noonan among them), which is very important, but does not answer the main charge that prayer is pointless. I, like many others, have been asking myself: Does prayer do any good against barbarism? Or do we have to acknowledge that it has only subjective value in the face of objective horrors?
We don’t think much about barbarism in America, so it’s hard to say what is effective against it. Sometimes we act as if barbarism were cultural smallpox, eradicated in our enlightened society. This is a dangerous—possible fatal—mistake.
The word barbaric was coined by the Romans to describe people who spoke something other than Latin. It meant “people who speak without sense.” This is obviously a highly relative definition, and eventually the word developed a more symbolic meaning: to be “barbaric” was to speak and live in an irrational way, disconnected from the education and traditions that composed “civilization.”
At first, the standard for civilization, or rational society, was the political stability of Rome infused with the philosophic clarity of Greece. Later, Christendom became synonymous with civilization, a bulwark against the horrors wreaked by “barbarians”: Mongols, Huns, and Vikings. (Note: This is an etymological summary, not an anthropological argument that all Christian societies have been free from barbarism.)
G. K. Chesterton delved into the varied nature of barbarism in his epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse, the story of Alfred the Great’s defeat of the Danish Vikings in 878 AD. Near the beginning of the poem, Alfred has suffered a crippling defeat and lost his entire army. He has a vision of the Virgin Mary, who tells him not to give up fighting the barbarians, who are wreaking havoc on his country. He sneaks into the Danish camp disguised as a minstrel and (because this is ancient England) has a sing-off with his avowed enemies, the Danish king Guthrum and two of his mightiest warriors, Aelf and Ogier.
The songs are the heart of the poem, and they give invaluable insight into the different forms barbarism can take. Aelf’s song is an example of folk barbarism: it contains symbolic religious sentiments but is ultimately without hope, because the myth is incomplete. He sings of the Norse gods who are overcome by evil when the universe itself rises against them. There is no hope, only the chance to make beautiful the fall of goodness. Second, Ogier’s song shows us furious barbarism. He rejects religious devotion as foolish and advocates frantic, hate-fueled action as the only antidote to despair. He worships the elemental chaos that troubles Aelf, because he believes that the only real thing in the universe is rage. Finally, Guthrum’s song is full of fatalistic barbarism. He believes that both religion and action are futile against despair. He rejects all gods, because he believes that at the center of existence there is neither tragedy nor rage, but nothingness.
The songs of the Danes show us that a single idea undergirds all kinds of barbarism: the existence of something is no different than its nonexistence. More simply, nothing matters.
The attacks in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino and the different reactions to these show us barbarism in all its forms. The attacks themselves are furious barbarism, a violent lashing-out against the universe. Then people began to offer “thoughts and prayers” on social media. While doubtless many of those offering prayers did in fact pray, there is a chance that at least some of them simply wrote “Praying!” and hit post without actually doing the difficult work of prayer. This is folk barbarism, indulging in religious sentiment without conviction. Then came more rage, rage at the shooters, rage at the prayers, rage at Congress. Finally, we settled gradually into fatalism—when will it happen next? where?—because we know that we can do nothing to stop it.
But something else happened during it all, something that begins to answer the question of whether prayer matters. In Colorado Springs, during the shooting near a Planned Parenthood clinic, a police officer named Garrett Swasey was killed. Mr. Swasey was a devout Christian, regularly read Scripture and prayed, and served as a pastor of a local church. Mr. Swasey was not assigned to the shooting situation at Planned Parenthood, but as soon as he heard what was happening he rushed to the scene, where he was one of the first responders. He died a few hours later.
One of his fellow officers said that even though Mr. Swasey was personally deeply opposed to abortion, “he was there to save lives,” no matter whose. President Obama praised Mr. Swasey’s courage in a statement that ends with the words, “may God grant the rest of us the courage to do the same thing.”
Mr. Swasey’s courage, as his fellow officers and friends repeatedly said, was rooted in a life of prayer. Christian prayer embraces the central mysteries of Christianity, including the mystery of Creation. Christianity asks the question, “Why did God create?” and concludes we can know from God’s choice to create that existence is better than nonexistence. For Christians, being is always better than nonbeing. Barbarism, on the other hand, denies this, and says instead that there is no way to evaluate the relative value of existence and nonexistence, of being and nothingness.
True prayer allows the appreciation of being to permeate the whole soul, which leads to actions like Mr. Swasey’s: the defense of those one fundamentally disagrees with, because one is certain that it is better for them to be than for them to be destroyed. To pray this way—with an unshakeable confidence in God’s love for the world—is to stake one’s flag in the goodness of being, and that hill can never be taken by those who deny it exists.
After the Danes’ songs in The Ballad of the White Horse, Alfred has his own song to sing. He tells Guthrum that even though the Danes have won all the battles, they have already lost everything, because they do not believe in the goodness of the world they’ve conquered. The closing words of Alfred’s song are worth remembering:
“Therefore your end is on you,
is on you and your kings,
not for a fire in Ely fen,
not that your gods are nine or ten,
but because it is only Christian men
guard even heathen things.”
Garrett Swasey knew this, from a deep life of prayer. When we ask ourselves whether prayer has any meaning in the face of horror, we must remember what prayer really is. It is not simply an anesthetic for the weak-minded against the pain of reality. It is nothing less than the blade that separates civilizations—societies that upholds the goodness of being—from barbarism, and that is infinitely valuable.
Jane Scharl has a BA in politics, philosophy, and economics from the King's College in New York, and has previously written for National Review Online, InEarnest Magazine, and Comment Magazine.